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Washington County's program helps veterans whose criminal conduct can be connected to service.

PMG PHOTO: CHRIS OERTELL - Frank Damato shakes hands with Judge D. Charles Bailey during a graduation day ceremony for the Veterans Treatment Court at Washington County Courthouse in Hillsboro, Ore., on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019.For years, U.S. Army veteran Frank Damato struggled with depression. The Beaverton resident said after six years of service in the 1980s, he was lonely.

He didn't have issues with alcohol until he was in his 50s, but depression and treatment for cancer in his mouth led him to cope by drinking.

In summer 2018, with multiple DUII charges on his record, Damato talked with a veterans justice officer from the Veterans Affairs Hospital who said Damato might be a good fit for a new veterans treatment court program through the Washington County District Attorney's Office.

On Thursday, Oct. 3, Damato became the second person to graduate from the program, following his final hearing before Washington County Circuit Court Judge Charles Bailey.

Several counties in Oregon have veterans treatment court programs, which are built on drug court and mental health court models, according to Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton. The program admits veterans who can show a relationship between their service and their criminal conduct. The intent is to help veterans dealing with issues such as post-traumatic stress disirder, depression or substance abuse avoid typical legal penalties by closely monitoring them and connecting them to housing and treatment services.

Washington County's program has grown since it started last summer. There are currently 13 veterans in the program.

PMG PHOTO: CHRIS OERTELL - District attorney Kevin Barton presents Frank Damato with a challenge coin during a graduation day ceremony for the Veterans Treatment Court at Washington County Courthouse in Hillsboro, Ore., on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019."These folks have gone through something different that's unique to our culture and our population as veterans," said Washington County Deputy District Attorney Tucker Rossetto, who served in the U.S. Army National Guard and advocated for the veterans court program. "This isn't the most original statement, but: If your country broke you, we owe it to you to try to fix you."

Rossetto said the judge doesn't mandate specific treatment methods for participants because it's best to leave that to experts at agencies such as the VA. The judge can require someone to go to treatment, but the goal is to motivate veterans through support to commit to treatment on their own.

"Ideally, the goal is that they become motivated to do this for their well-being and the desire to get back and rehabilitate, but for a lot of people, if your motivation is just staying out of jail, that's fine," Rossetto said.

The judge sanctions veterans who violate the terms of their treatment. Damato relapsed once, and Bailey ordered him to spend three days in jail. But Damato said if the program didn't exist, he would have been facing three years of formal probation, with urine tests and probation officer check-ins multiple times a week.

"It's strict, but it's structured so you know what's expected of you," Damato said. "Because of the supportive nature, what can I say — it was tough, but they supported me in my medical stuff. They were flexible with me."

At the veterans court hearing Thursday, 13 veterans went before Bailey for status checks. They discussed the successes and challenges of sobriety, financial issues affecting stability, and homelessness, but also opportunities to reconnect with children and other relatives. Throughout the hearing, Bailey was firm and supportive when discussing necessary treatments. He frequently congratulated the veterans on their progress.

During Damato's graduation, attorneys and service providers told Damato how essential his humor and support for others in the program was. As other veterans approached the judge during the hearing, Damato's quips brought laughter.

"I'm extremely proud of you, Frank," Bailey said. "I'm going to miss you and the bantering we get to do, because it was always fun. When I didn't see you in good spirits, it always worried me, because you tended to be in good spirits always joking around. I hope you'll come back and say hi to us every once in a while."

PMG PHOTO: CHRIS OERTELL - Frank Damato speaks during a graduation day ceremony for the Veterans Treatment Court at Washington County Courthouse in Hillsboro, Ore., on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019.Damato thanked attorneys and service providers for helping him through both his legal and medical issues. He echoed Bailey, saying he's come a long way since he started the program.

"I didn't know it then, and I now know it, that this program is exactly what I needed," Damato said. "It's now up to me, not an agency or a group, to decide how I'm going to live the rest of my life. That's all I wanted to do, but I wasn't ready for it, and I thought I was."

After being out of work for three years, Damato is at a point where he thinks he could handle a job, he said — hopefully, serving the public.

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